by Gemma Files
I’m going to tell you about something, and then . . . you’ll know. You won’t be able to un-know or forget why you should want to. And even if you decide you don’t believe it now, you’ll still have thought about it long enough to make that call, so it’ll still be too late. Because now it knows you know, it’ll be able to find you. To home in on you.
Just like it did with me.
Sometimes, a door is enough, open or otherwise. Or an empty moment, an empty page.
An empty head.
I remember the night my group and I first played the game that led us here, the Shut Door Sessions. It was all about imagination, or the lack of it.
We were writers, you see, supposedly. Desperate to be. And yes, I know the received wisdom, thank you very much—how you can fix bad writing, but you can’t fix no writing. How nothing you put down in words is ever going to match that gleaming, awe-inspiring thing you glimpse at the back of your head, so you might as well just let it come as it comes and try to make it better later. Try not to fixate on how the gold you had just before you started trying to hammer it into words somehow seems to have turned entirely to shit, an alchemical working in reverse: albedo up out of nigredo and back on down into nigredo again, hi ho, hi ho.
Always seeking the same goal, all of us, with no real hope of achieving it: something fresh, something new, something real—unique. The impossible fucking dream.
We’d all been there. We’d all spent most of our writing lives there, high school awards or university chapbook-publishing aside. And we’d still be there now, still stuck on the stories we weren’t qualified to wrestle from dream to page, if we’d never started playing that game.
Christ, how I wish we’d never started playing that game.
Here’s how it works: you each get a piece of paper—blank, lined or unlined, depending on what works best for you. You each get a pen. It can’t be your own pen or a piece of paper from your own notebook, if you have one; the work must be done physically, not electronically—no tablets, no laptops, no phones. And I don’t give a shit about how your ADD means you can’t spell without spell-check, Trevor. This isn’t school. I’m not taking marks off for presentation.
Four people around a four-person table, the sort made for family dinners. One person per cardinal direction with just enough elbow room to scribble without hurting each other, assuming you’re all similarly-handed. And at the top of each page you draw a door, any sort, so long as it’s shut.
Draw a door, a shut door, locked if it must be, and look at it. Look at it for as long as you must before you can write down exactly what’d be behind it, if it opened.
And which of us was it who first got the idea that grew into this weird-ass prompt-turned-ritual? Oh, that would be Leah, obviously. Little Ms. “The Voices in My Head Aren’t Talking to Me Directly This Week” herself, the queen of pants versus plot, always puking out stuff in seemingly unrelated chunks before stringing it together afterwards and telling people her characters told her how to do it. The woman whose whole idea of outlining is to basically throw a pack of Tarot cards in the air, turn them over at random once they hit the ground, and see what happens.
Leah and I had once been together in the sharing-a-bed sense, as opposed to the simply sharing-an-apartment one: met in first year, moved in together by third year, then broke up the year after graduation only to discover there was nowhere to move within public transit distance that wouldn’t cost twice as much rent as we were already paying. Which is how we still came to be “together” when she started the Shut Door Sessions, two roommates turned exes pretending we could actually be some variety of friends even after what happened . . . happened.
Such a cliché, too, all said and done, especially for two people so deeply engaged in trying to avoid clichés like the plague. One of those uncomfortable breakups where you don’t really want each other’s company any more but have far too much in common to avoid each other without making a scene. I mean, nobody wants to be the Crazy Ex from Hell, do they? The bitch, the asshole, the one who ruins things for everyone else. Don’t want to make your other friends unhappy, assuming you have some. So why throw the few friends you’ve already got away over something as negligible as mere post-physical entanglement heartbreak?
Just play along, guys, okay? No matter how silly it seems. Look at your door, let your eyes unfocus. Relax. Breathe deep and open yourselves up.
Just open yourselves up and wait to see what comes through.
Leah’s voice in Yuri’s living room that first night, excited enough to turn just a bit breathless, the way I’d heard it so many times before, albeit under very different circumstances. Which maybe explains why I was not only willing but eager to go along with this ridiculous plan of hers—chase the monkey down the monkey-track one more time, in hot pursuit of a truly inventive creativity I already suspected I had never really possessed. I’m talking about the ability to see something lurking inside a block of mental marble and free it with just a few pen-strokes. Craft a sentence clean as a bone over and over again, then hook them together into the skeleton of something never seen before.
My door was featureless, graphic, almost hieroglyphic—I’m a writer, not a visual artist. A bare rectangle with a small circle inside, halfway down the right-hand post…a handle, probably smooth brass, or maybe one of those old glassine diamonds with a bit of paint-slop left down around the part that rotates, turning left to pull tongue from lock and open inwards to reveal—
“The part that rotates,” hell . . . I really should know what that thing’s called, right? Considering my profession.
The door, and what’s behind it. What’s behind your door? See it, guys. Write it down.
Write it down, then tell me.
And now you want to stop, I’ll bet—to pull out before you go much further, let alone the whole, full way with me. But you can’t, can you? You need to know what you won’t be able to stop thinking about, if you do.
Besides which: it’s already too late, really. I mean, you’ve already read this far.
Here’s what I wrote, that first time:
A dark road, or what looks like one. No moon and no horizon. Hard to see where the ground blends with the sky, but as it comes towards the door-frame it starts looking porous, tactile. Tiny holes or tiny stones? Gravel? A bed of gravel on either side of two long, dull gray lines with lighter lines between them like a ladder on the ground or maybe train-tracks, away into the distance. Trees on either side? Shadows, spiky, overhanging. They switch back and forth on the tracks, no noise but if there was it would be rustling. Distant. A high and a lonely wind. Nothing else.
Breathing in, breathing out. Resisting the urge to check my watch. Listening to the scratch of other people’s pens around me—trying not to picture Leah with her tongue-tip caught between her teeth, bottom lip a little furled to show darker pink inside pale lipstick. Trevor scribbling hard, like he’s fighting the alphabet. Yuri humming. Trying not to recognize the tune.
The posts are darkening, shadow spreading outwards. A black thickening at the threshold, like drool.
(I wanted to stop then too, believe me. That early on. Before I’d even seen . . . anything.)
Another tick, a half-breath, barely tasted. And then—
Now a sense of something changing in the furthest section: a dot, dark separating from dark. Thinning as it moves closer, paced like a man’s stride, not quick, not slow. Steady. Taller now. The track isn’t completely straight like it seemed, there’s a rise, and he’s moving up it, cresting it. Very tall now, very, in a long dark coat like the song. Head down, hood up. Movement around the knees, pump of muscle and flutter of wind. The coat is black. His face is pale, obscure. Pitted? Hair down across the eyes? Chin pointed?
Nothing to stop him. Nothing that can stop him.
I don’t know where he’s going. Coming.
My hand formed the word, the question mark, HERE plus a squiggle above a dot. Underline swooping up into two-part quirk done so fast it scarred the page, barely separated, ink bleeding into ink.
Shut it again, and fast, I remember thinking, breath hissing back out like a stomach-punch, just do it slam it lock it. Just shut shut shut the fucking door.
“Annnnd done,” Leah chimed in overtop, cheerily. “Pens down, guys. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
I remember sitting back, flipping my paper as I did so, like I was afraid what might come out of it. Then seeing Leah point at Trevor, who winced, and started reading.
“Behind my door, um, what I see is, like . . . a long, dark road,” he began, flat and halting, eyes squinched as if having trouble with his own words. “Or a bunch of train-tracks? One track, going off through a forest, uh . . . and it’s really hard to see where it goes because the trees are all, like, jam-packed in on either side—”
Across the table, Yuri snorted. “You fucking kidding me?” he asked, glaring at Trevor.
Leah, still breathless: “Uh—no crit until we’re all finished, please…”
“Oh, seriously? When joker here just read mine upside-down and copied it, instead of making up his own? Real mature, T.”
Trevor flushed. “Am I supposed to know what the fuck he’s talking about?”
“Guys,” said Leah. “Guys.”
But Yuri was off again, as he so often was during these workshop attempts: he was an old-school Asimov fan who believed anything other than Ass-In-Chair-Hands-On-Keyboard was self-indulgent time-wasting and didn’t think much of Trevor’s too-obvious eagerness to try anything Leah proposed. Nor had he ever stinted at saying so, bluntly. If anything was a surprise this time, it was the uncharacteristic ferocity with which Trevor came back at him, for once; within minutes both were on their feet yelling at each other, with Leah shrinking between, her feeble efforts at mediation completely silenced.
Nobody noticed me, at the time, picking up Trevor’s page and scanning it. Then Yuri’s. After which, I got up and left, leaving my own scribble on the table without saying anything.
I don’t think anybody noticed that for a while, either.
“Kris?” Hand on my shoulder, light, tinglingly familiar. It took some effort not to roll towards the touch for a kiss. “You awake?”
“Am now,” I muttered. The bedroom was dark, but it wasn’t like Leah needed the lights to know her way around. “Sorry. Should’ve said goodbye.”
“No, no. I understand.” The hand withdrew; a small, compact weight settled itself on the bed, carefully distant. After a moment, paper crackled. “I, um—I thought you might want this.” And there it was, thrust without warning in front of my face. My Shut Door Exercise. I had to stifle the urge to rip it from her hands and tear it into shreds.
In hindsight I don’t think that would have helped. But I still wish I had. Instead, I just took it, levered myself upright and slipped it into my bedside table drawer. Leah watched, wide eyes glinting in the dark.
“Is that really what you wrote?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
I hate how you do that, I remember her shouting at me. Dodge questions by asking more questions. You always put everything back on me! But she surprised me. Not saying anything, she shuffled close enough to reach the bedside lamp, turned it on, then gave me another piece of paper. I stared at her. She just nodded at the paper and gazed back.
Her door was pure Leah: a neat little sketch of opened gates with arching tops and angular runes above them, Tolkien’s Mines of Moria entrance in miniature. Below that, her handwriting reeled across the page in the familiar chicken-scratches. Reading it had always, always been an effort in squinting patience and guesswork . . . until now. Railroad tracks off into the dark, it began. I see them through the trees. A night with no moon, and he comes walking. . .
I didn’t need to read the rest, any more than you need to read it now. All sleepiness was gone, though I couldn’t have told you what replaced it. Fear didn’t seem like the right word. It felt more like prickly queasiness. Like nothing I’d ever felt.
“Trevor didn’t copy Yuri,” I said, roughly. “Neither did you. Right?”
Leah shook her head. “I—I thought, for just a minute, that he might have. I mean, if he was really desperate enough to impress you, then maybe he—”
“Impress me? I thought he was hung up on you.”
That got a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time; something caught in my throat. Leah shook her head. “God, Kris, you never could pick up on that kind of thing.” The smile faded. “No, he was too angry. Which means it was real. Which means . . .” She let out a shaky breath. “I also got this word in my head,” she said, without segue. “Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something—something Latin, I think.”
“I didn’t know you knew Latin.”
“I don’t, it just—sounded that way to me. Like a Roman name from Asterix, or something.” She stopped by the door, arms folded, half-turned away. I couldn’t see her eyes anymore.
“Are you okay?” I blurted, before I caught myself. We’d stopped asking each other that sort of thing. But all I got was a dull shrug.
“Sure.” A deep breath; a sidelong look. “I don’t think the exercise worked tonight, though.”
“Probably . . . better not to do it again, then,” I answered carefully.
So much that could have been said, in that look. None of it anything we could say. Nothing that would have made a difference, even now.
“Good night, Kris,” she said, and left.
Not a forest this time. Flat, open prairie, an achingly wide night sky overhead; stars like spilled salt, crusting purple clouds. I stood amid swaying, whispering plants that might have been corn, or wheat, or savannah grass. A black shadow painted a depthless rectangle before me on the plain; I could smell the barn’s wood mold and wet hay, undercut with dead mice and desiccated cow shit. A road cut across the plain past me, straight as a laser beam. The full moon blazed.
Made it all the easier to see.
The walker was farther away, tiny, only a smudged speck of moving black where the road disappeared into the invisible horizon. No way to tell where he was looking, though his shape inched slowly but evenly down the road’s dead center, as if he was staring straight ahead. But I knew he knew I was there. Just as I knew why he wasn’t hurrying. What need? He knew I couldn’t move.
It should have taken a long time for him to reach me. Maybe it did. Time slips around in dreams, we all know that. But he didn’t change course even as he approached. Hooded, black-cloaked, nothing but shadow under the cowl; his head didn’t angle towards me. He wasn’t even particularly tall—maybe six feet, if that. And the cloak draped and flowed like a perfectly normal human was wearing it. Even his movement looked like an ordinary walk. A steady, slightly-too-rhythmic walk, but a walk.
And… he was passing me. Not even turning to look.
I had half an instant to feel a surreal mix of giddy relief, bemused shock and even something like indignation, like part of me wanted to yell Is that it?! But then—
I want to tell you the word he told me: the word that sounded right in my ear, despite the distance between us; the word spoken at a nearly normal volume, calm, quiet, without rancor, without haste. But the explosion of sheer terror it detonated inside me erased it even as I heard it—a trauma so huge it blotted itself out in the instant of its own creation, the way the mind discards any pain too huge to process. Like when a tooth’s pulled without freezing or a bone breaks; when you knock the wind out of yourself, when you get a concussion. You know it happened, and you know you never want it to happen again, but . . . that’s all, that’s it. Nothing else.
Just the scar where it’s been.
At some point I realized I was awake. My mouth and throat felt dry, and dizziness lingered; I must have been hyperventilating. Had I screamed? Leah would have come running to check on me if I had. Unless—I checked the alarm clock and groaned. No, she was long gone to work by now. I made myself get up, shower, and get dressed, even though my shift at the bookstore didn’t start for hours.
The apartment was unnervingly quiet. I did what little busywork I could find, which didn’t take long. And then, without letting myself think about it, I went into Leah’s room and sat down on the bed.
I hadn’t allowed myself to do this in nearly two years. This had been the room we’d shared while we were together—I’d taken the spare bedroom afterwards because I had far less stuff to move out; I’d never collected anything like her vast array of kitsch, knickknacks and tchotchkes, like the horde of ceramic monkeys still taking up an entire shelf or the rows of unused Sacred Heart candles littering her dresser. Boxes and boxes of odds and ends, strewn along the windowsill. The closet stuffed to bursting with clothes. And her smell, still in the air, without any need to press my face into the pillow.
You had to look close to see what was missing. Beside the stereo, the stack of CDs was half the height it had once been. A sparsely-filled bookshelf, slightly bent, as if it had long held up a much heavier weight. A protruding nail on the wall where a picture had hung, the sort of thing everybody reminds themselves to get around to removing and never remembers. But if you didn’t think to look, you wouldn’t notice. You might think nobody else had ever slept here.
Maybe it was anger that made me get up and go to the second box from the right on her windowsill, the only one you needed to know the trick to open. Fingernails in the right hidden slots: slide, twist, press, click. I dug out the notepad and pencil that Leah had showed me, the pad where I knew she wrote down her dreams. And for the first time in two years I sat down and started reading.
Nothing about me, which was both a relief and a disappointment. The usual surreal nonsense. One surprising scene about Yuri, of all people—I’d always known Leah’s tastes were wider than mine but hadn’t thought she felt anything for him beyond friendship. Journeys, conversations, images clearly plucked out and set aside for some future poem—
I turned to the last page and stopped. She’d written something down here . . . but it had been utterly obliterated by a black charcoal smear scribbled so forcefully onto the paper that the sheet itself felt warped under my fingers. I tilted it back and forth under the light, trying to make something out, but gave up when my eyes started to hurt.
Then a better idea came to mind. I flipped to the next page, took the pencil, and began delicately shading light gray over the paper. The impression of the word bloomed up in white against the gray, gouged into the pulp; almost, but not quite, too faint to see.
(Like I was hearing it from far away. An echo of an echo. Something Latin, I think . . .)
On her desk, Leah had left her computer open and running, as she always did. One Google search, and the answer was there in front of me. It was, indeed, Latin. My face felt numb.
I am coming.
I begged off sick from my shift, waited for Leah to get home and told her what I’d found. I was a little surprised she didn’t get angry—violation of her privacy was one of the few things that normally set her off—but I guess both of us knew we were beyond that now. We called the guys. Trevor, surprise surprise, was perfectly willing to meet tonight even on this short notice; Yuri took some persuading, but finally agreed, and even offered his living room again.
Once Yuri had finally gotten it through his head that no, this wasn’t some kind of practical joke, he practically went berserk; it was the most excited I’d ever seen him. “Don’t you get it, Kris?” he raved, striding around the room. “We’ve actually achieved something paranormal here! Subconscious telepathic communication, at least—or maybe we actually contacted something! A spirit, a ghost, whatever . . .”
“Well, you know, it could also be—” Trevor began.
Yuri didn’t listen. “We have to do this again. Now we all know what to concentrate on, maybe we can make contact consciously. God! I should record this. Let me get my phone.” He sprinted out and was back in a second, setting up his phone on a sideboard by the dining room table. Trevor looked at me helplessly.
“Yuri. Yuri.” I had to raise my voice. He blinked at me. “Yuri, we didn’t do this to convince you to keep going with it. We want it to stop.”
Yuri stared. “That’s ridiculous,” he said after a moment, in a perfectly level voice. “That’s stupid. That’s like Alexander Fleming throwing out his moldy petri dishes without checking them first. Look, we’re not calling up Captain Howdy on a Ouija board here. We’re confirming whether we’re sharing the same mental experiences. That’s all. Besides, if you want it to stop, doesn’t it make more sense to finish it? Wrap it up, bring it to a conclusion, whatever it is?”
Trevor cleared his throat. “I, um . . . I gotta say, I kind of don’t want to leave it hanging either. You’re . . . you’re supposed to face this stuff, I think. That’s what Dr. Tallan always says.”
I turned to Leah for backup. The look on her face was like a slap. My fists knotted. “Fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you’re buying this,” I said.
She swallowed but didn’t flinch. “Kris, I’m sorry,” she replied in a small voice. It sounded almost exactly like the way she’d said I’m sorry two years ago, when she’d first asked me to move out. “But I don’t want to have that dream again. Do you?”
No, but— The words disintegrated in my mouth, leaving nothing behind.
Yuri clapped his hands, as if that had settled it. “Okay, then. Let’s do this. Everybody, get a piece of paper from someone else; Leah, give me your pencil, I’ll get pens for the rest of us . . .” Of course, he’d remembered the procedure exactly, even while he was scoffing. Before I knew it, we were all seated around the table again, and Trevor, at Yuri’s order, was setting a timer on his own phone under the steady stare of Yuri’s camera lens. Yuri took his seat, practically rubbing his hands in glee. “You know how this goes, guys. Draw the door. Concentrate on it. And open yourself up to see what comes through.” He nodded to Trevor. “Go.”
Trevor started the timer, then bent his head to his paper. So did Leah and Yuri. I put my pencil on the paper but sat still, fully intending to draw nothing, write nothing. Okay, I’d scribble the pencil around meaninglessly a little, just to make it look good, but—
My mouth dried.
From what I’d been sure were completely random muscle movements, the cartoon-simple shape of the door—rectangle, tiny circle—had somehow emerged. I couldn’t take my eyes from it. My hand cramped; my fingers hurt; my forearm ached. The pencil scribbled across the page. The door seemed to be blurring in and out.
Not real, I thought fuzzily. Think of something real but faraway. If he’s coming to where he thinks you are, show him something different. Send him on. I tried to conjure up places in my mind that I knew I’d never seen, even to recognize on TV: Boise, Cleveland, Saskatoon. Minsk. Aachen. Beijing. Locations that were nothing more than a name and a vague direction.
But the problem is that the more you try to imagine what’s too unfamiliar to conceive, the more your own familiarities snap into place in the gaps, like a default reflex you can’t control. The nameless city becomes your own city; a shapeless street becomes a road you know. Any building becomes your building . . . or your friend’s. The corridor becomes an all-too-recognizable hallway. And as the shadows pour down that hallway, surrounding the silently walking figure, its hand lifting to the door to knock, the more your head wants to turn from the paper door to the real one, even while part of you is desperately screaming not to look up, not to look, not to—
Trevor’s phone went off in a flurry of electronic chimes. I jumped. Across the table, Leah looked like she wanted either to burst into tears or throw up. Yuri shook his head, seeming to snap awake. “Whoa,” he said. “Okay, I’ll read mine first, then we—”
A knocking came at the door. Not loud, not heavy-handed; polite, almost diffident. Yuri scowled. “Fuck me, go the fuck away,” he muttered. When the knocking came again, he repeated himself, this time in a shout: “Fuck off, asshole!”
The knocking only continued. Yuri rolled his eyes. I stared at him, trying to get enough breath into my lungs to ask him: couldn’t he see it? The shadow, coagulating thickly around the edges of his front door, like tar seeping through cardboard? Couldn’t he feel the cold in the air? But I couldn’t even get my hand to move as he rose from his chair and strode towards the door. Leah was whimpering. Trevor stared at me like a kid waiting for his parents to explain something he didn’t understand. Yuri reached the door, grabbed the knob, twisted it, and flung it open.
There was nobody there. And simultaneously all the shadow, all the chill, it was all gone. I could move again. Breathed easily. The absence of fear felt almost like being drunk. Yuri looked down the outside hall, then blew out an exasperated breath. “Well, that was—” he began, turning around.
The doorway behind him went night-black. Something reached out of the darkness behind him, seized his shoulder, and pulled. Yuri flew backwards like a stuntman on a wire and vanished, the void that swallowed him gone in the same instant. The door hung open. The hallway was empty.
I sat there still, same position. Couldn’t move a muscle. Leah was the one who went white. Trevor was the one who vomited.
I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us to call the police. We couldn’t have told them anything they’d believe, obviously. But worse than that, we couldn’t have told them anything we’d believe. Every 911 call ever made boils down to one of just two messages: Help me please or It’s not my fault; both at once. Problem is, neither of those were true. They still aren’t.
Nobody could help Yuri, any more than they could help us. And it was our fault.
Trevor cleaned up his sick while Leah had a sobbing breakdown on the couch. I replayed what Yuri’s phone had recorded, over and over, but the lens hadn’t been pointed towards the front door. Again and again, the knocking came; Yuri scowled, swore, shouted, then got up and walked out of frame as the three of us stared after him; his last, almost-inaudible half sentence; and then, the reaction—Leah swaying, me frozen, Trevor doubling over. It was nearly hypnotic. I only came out of it when Trevor tapped me on the shoulder and told me he was walking me and Leah home.
We had to leave the apartment door unlocked, of course.
I don’t remember much of that walk. I barely remember Trevor in the door of our apartment, insisting that it was no problem at all to crash on our couch, and Leah pushing him out, sounding too tired to be either kind or harsh. I remember huddling up under my blankets the way I hadn’t done since I was eight. I think I remember Leah lying down next to me, but she was gone when I woke.
The day crawled by. My manager called once, asking if I was feeling better; I told her no and tried to feel touched when she sounded worried. In the afternoon, Trevor sent me and Leah several e-mails from his office address, carrying multiple links and attachments. I read them without replying. The final message’s subject line had degenerated into all-caps begging, and when I saw it was addressed only to me, not Leah, I deleted it unread. I spent some time looking at the photos and videos of Yuri I still had saved on my phone, trying to think what I’d say when whoever eventually went looking for him started to ask questions.
The light from the windows inched across the floor and faded away. I sat in the deepening gloom. Listening. Every hair on my body stretched out, feeling for a chill in the air.
I am coming.
It was mostly dark when Leah finally got home. She waved a sheaf of paper at me as she came in, apparently unsurprised to find me waiting on the couch. “I printed it all out,” she said. “Everything Trevor found. What do you think? It makes a lot of sense to me, I have to say.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “If this is something we . . . we created, just out of our minds with that exercise, why don’t we have control over it? Why can’t we turn it off?”
“Well, we haven’t exactly tried yet.” Leah flipped on the lights, came over and sat down beside me, shuffling through the papers. “That Reddit discussion thread, about how to destroy tulpas—”
“Where they all say you just have to stop paying attention to them? How’s that been working for you?”
Leah put her hands on her knees and breathed deeply. “The post near the end,” she said, when the color had faded out of her face. “It says one way to actively dissipate a tulpa is to force something into its definition that’s essentially a self-contradiction. Like, if you create an imaginary friend, you have to visualize it doing something nobody you call a friend could ever do, like stealing your ex, or . . . or something like that. And then when it can’t believe in itself the way it was built to, it falls apart. It literally melts down from the cognitive dissonance.”
I snorted. “Yeah, and there are other posts that say the only way to kill a tulpa is to kill whoever created it. Are we buying into that too?”
Leah flushed again. “No! Look, Kris, all I’m saying is that it’s worth a shot. I mean, have you got any other ideas?”
Now who’s throwing everything back on who? I got up and went to the window, glaring out at the traffic whooshing by outside on Bathurst Street; my legs burned. “We could leave,” I said. “Just pick up and get out of here, go as far as we can. See if that makes a difference.”
“‘We?’” Leah replied.
It was my turn to flush, abrupt and fierce. I opened my mouth to snap That’s not what I meant, not at all sure what I had meant . . . and coughed out the taken breath in a gasp, heat draining to cold in an instant. “Oh, Christ,” I gulped, staring across the street. “Oh, shit—Leah.” I pointed, amazed to see my hand was shaking. “Do you see that? Tell me you see that!”
“See what?” Leah had raced to my side, squinting through our images in the glass. “Hang on—” She dashed back to the door, turned the lights out. Darkness dropped over us. The black figure across the road, a silhouette huddled in the corner of an alley, became sharper, seemed to loom closer out of the dark. Leah returned to the window; I felt her stiffen. “Oh, shit,” she breathed. “Kris, what do we do? What do we do?”
Good fucking question. I tried to pull my brain back into one piece. “We could try going out the back door of the main house,” I said, voice hoarse. “We’d have to hop the fence, sneak out through the property on the other side, but . . .”
The figure pushed one hand back awkwardly over its head. Pale hair glinted momentarily in a flicker of the streetlight. And my terror collapsed so completely and quickly into exasperated rage it almost made me puke. “Oh, fuck me,” I said, yanked the window open and stuck my head out. “Trevor! Get your ass over here!” The black figure jerked; the hat it had been wearing fell off, and Trevor hunched down to grab it as if ducking out of a sniper’s line of fire.
“What the hell were you thinking?” I bellowed at him a minute later on the doorstep of our building. “Were you fucking trying to scare us into a heart attack?” Trevor seemed to shrink as I kept yelling; Leah looked like she wanted to say something but couldn’t think what. “This is not a fucking game any more! We don’t have time for this kind of stalker bullshit—!”
“I wasn’t . . .” Trevor’s voice cracked. “I’m not stalking you guys, Kris, God! I just . . . I just want to make sure you’re safe, OK? Both of you! You’re, like, the only people on this planet I give a shit about at all, and if I lost you, I don’t . . . I don’t . . .” He trailed off, swallowed liquidly and scrubbed one hand across his face, not looking at me. “You never answered my last e-mail,” he finished. “I tried to say it all in there. But you never answered.”
Fuck. Of all the times for Leah to be right. I couldn’t decide whether to laugh, cry or scream. “You give a shit about us?” I asked instead. “Fine. Then fucking listen to me and get it through your head: Leah I don’t know about, but I am very definitely Gay All Day, and you know that thing about ‘if this was the last minute before death would you at least kiss me goodbye?’ Hate to say it, man, ‘cause you’re my friend, and I love you, but not like that—this probably is our last minute, and, no. Never. Not ever. Please, just . . . go the fuck home and think about it until you get that.”
Trevor stared at me for a long time, his eyes wet. “I . . . can’t,” he finally whispered, so quiet I could barely hear him. “I’m scared, Kris.”
I sighed, too exhausted for any more anger. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too. So come in if you want. But no more of this shit, okay? That’s done.”
Trevor only nodded, staring at the concrete steps.
I want to say his silence worried me, as we got him set up on the couch to stay the night. I want to say I was thinking about him at least that much. I want to say I was thinking about anything at all but the sick dread pooling in my stomach and the sounds outside our apartment’s front door.
I want to say that all I felt when I went into the bathroom in the morning and saw Trevor hanging from the showerhead, a pair of Leah’s hose serving as a noose, was what anybody would feel: shock, horror, anguish, pain. Rage at the pointlessness, the selfishness. Grief like a hole chewing its way through your gut, even before I read his note through streaming eyes: It took all four of us to make it. Maybe it needs all four of us to keep going. A tulpa dies when its maker dies. Maybe this will break the chain. I’m sorry, Kris. I can’t think of any other way.
I only ever wanted you to be safe.
I was sitting on the cold bathroom floor, note crumpled in my fist, muttering between dry sobs: “Oh, God, Trev, fuck you. Fuck you, Trev. God, God. . .” when Leah came in, and started to scream. Which finally gave me something else to think about besides the sickening, contemptible truth: in that first moment of comprehension, what I’d felt, more than anything else . . .
. . . was envy.
There wasn’t any way to keep the cops out of it this time, though nobody official acted like an asshole. You figure the people who handle this sort of thing learn to tell the fakers from the genuinely traumatized pretty quick most of the time. Not that that’s exactly consoling. I remember one bad moment when one of the uniformed officers gave me a narrow look, like something about my no-I-didn’t-have-the-slightest-idea-but-he-was-in-therapy answer didn’t ring right, but he didn’t do anything except give me a card and tell me to call him if I thought of anything else. Leah had cried herself into unconsciousness before anyone had even gotten there, leaving me to handle the clean-up.
After everything was over and everyone was gone, I went into Leah’s room and sat at her desk, waiting. For a moment I thought about lying down beside her but couldn’t bring myself to do it. The urge didn’t last long anyway. Eventually, she woke up and looked at me, and I knew the truth the instant I met her hollow, reddened gaze.
“He’s still coming,” I said.
Leah only nodded. “He was . . . I recognized the street. It’s in Windsor. I grew up there. I could smell the fog . . .” Her voice was raw, a wreck of itself. “This isn’t . . . I don’t think we made this, Kris. Not completely. Maybe we gave it a shape. But this thing—it’s something else. From somewhere else. I think, maybe, it’s been looking for a door for a long time.” Her gaze dropped to the bedclothes. “And we gave it four of them.”
“And wrote it a fucking set of directions,” I said.
Leah frowned, sitting up. “Wait. What if—what if that’s it? We wrote its path out for it. Who’s to say we can’t write its ending the way we want?” Suddenly energized, she swung her legs off the bed and leaned forward to grab my hands. “This whole thing started as a story. Maybe if we want to finish it, we have to finish the story.”
I stared at her. “Finish it, like . . . how? Just write him going away?”
“Why not?” With what was now almost manic enthusiasm, Leah leapt up, dug her dream journal out of her box, and slammed it down on the desk in front of me. “That’s my book, so you’ll have to write it, but we can do this right now! Come on, come on . . .” Unable to find words to argue, I let her swivel me around, took the pencil she shoved into my hand as she flipped the journal to a blank page. “Okay. Go for it. Draw the door and write the ending.”
“This can’t . . .” But my hand was already moving. Same door as before: rectangle, circle. I closed my eyes and saw shapes move in the blackness. Saw one shape moving slowly, steadily, coming nearer. Leah was muttering in my ear: The road goes ever on and on, and the traveller must follow, no stops, no destination, no visits; no one waits to welcome him, only the endless road, leaving all other souls behind, untouched, safe in the light, safe in the light, safe in the light as he disappears forever—
“Jesus!” My entire arm suddenly cramped in vicious agony, driving the pencil across the page so hard it tore through the paper and snapped in half. Leah yelped, jumping back. I wrung my hand, feeling blood seeping from my gouged knuckles. “Fuck! Okay, that didn’t work.”
“No. No, of course it wouldn’t, that wasn’t an ending, that was just a copout.” Leah grabbed the book, flipped to another page and yanked another pen from the desk drawer. “It’s a journey, right? Journeys have to end somewhere.” She sketched a door of her own, this one no more complicated than mine, and paused. “We have to send him somewhere. Somewhere a person couldn’t survive; somewhere we know nothing could survive.” She looked at me expectantly.
I shrugged, at a loss. “Underwater?” I said. “I don’t know! Um, underground. Buried.” Leah nodded, scribbling furiously. “In space. In the center of the sun . . . Wait! No, he wants his door. I don’t think we’re gonna keep him away from it.”
Leah stopped writing and drew a shuddering breath. She never did give up. I’d loved that about her once, before I’d hated how it meant she never let a fight go until she thought she’d won it.
“Doors,” she said. “That was how it happened with Yuri, too. Maybe—maybe that’s the key. Not the words. The door.” I gaped at her as she turned to one more blank page and, glancing defiantly at me, drew a different rectangle: this one wider than it was tall, with no knob on it or anything else.
“You want to put him inside a wall?” Terror drove through me like freezing water forced down my throat. “No! No, goddammit, Leah, if you do that it’s only going to make every wall a door! He’ll be able to get in anywhere!” I leaped forward and dragged her away from the desk, into the middle of the room, holding her by the shoulders as I cast around wildly. “Oh, Christ, he’s close, isn’t he? He can fucking hear it in our heads! Don’t think of him in the walls! Don’t!”
Leah shook her head. “No, shit, you’re right, you’re right . . .” She closed her eyes, taking deep breaths, half-determined and half-dismayed. “Not the walls,” she muttered, fists clenched. “Not the walls, not the walls, not the—”
She stopped, staring down. I followed her gaze.
Two shadows stretched out in different directions from her feet.
Leah’s head snapped up, eyes wide, breath sucking in. “Oh, shit, Kri—” was all she got out, before two massive arms made of something that looked like molten tar exploded out of the floor, wrapped around her, and jerked her back down into it. Under. Through. Away.
So that was three days ago. I’ve been working on this ever since, on Leah’s laptop.
I told my boss I wasn’t coming back to work, after which I unplugged Leah’s landline and turned off both her phone and mine. There was a banging on the door yesterday that sounded like a cop’s knock, but I just stopped moving and didn’t say anything. After a while it stopped. I haven’t eaten much or slept much. Strangely, when I do sleep, I don’t dream.
And now you know why you shouldn’t ever have started reading, whoever’s reading this. Because he gets stronger the closer he gets. If you know about him, he knows about you. The only thing I can think of is that if enough people learn about him, he’ll be—I don’t know—maybe dispersed somehow. Like a drop of ink disappearing in a lake. I want to believe that, because I don’t have anything left to think about the alternative.
And maybe if all I do is give him more people to . . . to take, he’ll be grateful enough that whatever he does with me, whenever he does come for me, maybe I’ll at least end up where Leah is. Wherever she went. Wherever Yuri went. I want to hope maybe somehow Trevor will be there, too, but I don’t know how reasonable that is—
Reasonable. Jesus Christ. I just wrote the word reasonable.
Maybe I should have tried harder to make this story unreadable, unbelievable. Forgettable. But that’s the trick about forgetting: you can’t ever really choose to do it. You can only wait and hope it happens. Sit in an empty apartment, breathing as quietly as you can. You can try to unfocus your eyes. Try not to read. Try not to recognize words. Try not to put them together.
Try not to think of water.
Try not to think of darkness.
Try not to think of the inside of your wall.
Try not to think of the inside of your own body. Of the inside of your own head.
Try not to think of anything.
Try to think of nothing.
About the Author
Though she was born in London, England, Gemma Files is a Canadian citizen, and has lived in Toronto, Ontario for her entire life (thus far). She is the daughter of two actors, Gary Files and Elva Mai Hoover. Files graduated from Ryerson University with a B.A.A. in Magazine Journalism, then spent roughly eight years as a film critic, primarily writing for local alt-culture journal eye Weekly. By 1998, she was also teaching screenwriting, short screenplay writing, television series development, film history and Canadian film history, first at the Trebas Institute, then the Toronto Film School. After leaving eye, she taught full-time, while also publishing two collections of short stories (Kissing Carrion and The Worm in Every Heart, both from Prime Books) and two chapbooks of poetry (Bent Under Night, a Sinnersphere Production, and Dust Radio, from Kelp Queen Press). In 2002, she married fellow author Stephen J. Barringer. In 2008, the Toronto Film School closed down and Files’ son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. She became a stay-at-home Mom, finally beginning serious work on her long-planned first novel. A Book of Tongues: Volume One in the Hexslinger Series (ChiZine Publications) was released in April, 2010, and will be followed by two sequels, A Rope of Thorns (2011) and A Tree of Bones (2012).
About the Narrator
Nika Harper is a writer and performer who spends long, solitary nights on the internet because her brain won’t shut up. She lives in Los Angeles, CA, where she houses her collection of magic wands and an overwhelming stockpile of empty journals. You can check to see if she got any new tattoos recently at ThisisNika.com and chat about horror on Twitter @NikaHarper.